Month: February 2014
As we gear up to release Uncommon Stock, our first FG Press book, we just had an internal discussion about book blurbs. The concept of a blurb was apparently invented in 1907. The origin story of the blurb is amusing – according to Wikipedia:
“The word blurb originated in 1907. American humorist Gelett Burgess’s short 1906 book Are You a Bromide? was presented in a limited edition to an annual trade association dinner. The custom at such events was to have a dust jacket promoting the work and with, as Burgess’ publisher B. W. Huebsch described it, “the picture of a damsel — languishing, heroic, or coquettish — anyhow, a damsel on the jacket of every novel” In this case the jacket proclaimed “YES, this is a ‘BLURB’!” and the picture was of a (fictitious) young woman “Miss Belinda Blurb” shown calling out, described as “in the act of blurbing.”
While the history lesson is cute, the blurb has long since ceased to be useful. As a reader, I’m incredibly suspicious of them because as a writer, I know how they are manufactured. More on that in a bit, but for now, take a few minutes and check out some #HonestBlurbs.
Our internal back and forth on whether to include blurbs on our FG Press books resulted in the following rant from me.
I think endorsements like this are bullshit. I’m literally getting asked daily (5 times / week – sometimes more) to endorse books. I used to do it, now I say no unless it’s a friend, and even then they usually write the endorsement.
It’s an artifact of the publishing business that existed before “earned media” – blog posts, reviews, etc.
I’d love to just BLOW UP blurbs.
I think we should be focusing on real earned media, real reviews, real substantive support, rather than marketing nonsense the industry has been pushing since the early 1900s.
We had a little more back and forth but the more I thought about it, the more I have no interest in blurbs. I’ve been saying no to a lot of the requests I get recently, after having my name on probably 50 blurbs for other books in the last few years. At first, I always read the book before writing the blurb. Then, I started skimming the book before writing the blurb. Recently, I’ve been either asking the writer to send me a draft of the blurb they’d like, or I’ve just said something generically positive but non-substantive.
I’ve watched the other direction work the same way. It’s similar to press release quotes – it ends up being manufactured PR stuff, rather the authentic commentary. The idea that a static, short, manufactured blurb from a well known person as an endorsement of a book is so much less authentic than Amazon reviews, GoodReads, and blog posts from people who actually read the book.
When people send me a note that they liked my book, I ask them to put up a review on Amazon if they are game. When someone writes with constructive feedback on a book I’ve written, I ask them to put up a review on Amazon, with the constructive feedback, if they are game. I appreciate all the serious feedback – both good and bad. Sure – I get trolled by some people who say things like “Feld is a moron, this book is another stupid thing he’s done.” I ignore that kind of thing, and feel that most rational humans can separate the signal from the noise.
So, at least for now, we aren’t going to do blurbs on FG Press books. Instead, we’ll ask people to put up reviews on Amazon, GoodReads, their blog, and other sites that make sense. And, when someone requests a blurb from me, I’m going to start passing and defaulting to writing a review on this site and putting up the review on Amazon on GoodReads, like I have for many of the books I’ve read.
A few weeks ago a I wrote a post titled It’s Not Right vs. Left, It’s Old vs. New about the conflict between innovators and incumbents. As a society, we are just starting to wander into the real structural conflict around this and I don’t believe our government, either at the local, state, or federal level, really knows what to do about it, or how to effectively engage in it.
If you want a magnificent example of this, all you need to do is look at what’s going on with Bitcoin. Actually, you just need to read two relatively short “open letters” which appeared on the web this morning.
Now, read Fred Wilson from USV’s blog post A Letter To Senator Manchin where he explains how regulatory activity in the US is already inhibiting innovation around Bitcoin, rebuts Manchin’s perspective, and analogizes Bitcoin to the Internet.
It’s probably no surprise that I completely agree with Fred’s perspective.
For disclosure, I don’t have much of a financial stake in this game – I own slightly less than 20 Bitcoins (I’ve used fractions to buy some stuff), have no intention to be a Bitcoin trader (I don’t actively trade individual public company stocks or currencies either), and I don’t have a direct equity investment in any company around the Bitcoin ecosystem (although I have several investments in VC funds who do.) I originally bought the Bitcoins for the Coursera course Startup Engineering which I managed to get through the fourth week of before I couldn’t make enough time to keep up with it. I thought I’d bought 10 but was surprised to see a few months ago that I had 20.
While I don’t have a financial stake, I have a huge intellectual and emotional stake in this. Bitcoin is a fascinating innovation. It has the potential to transform a number of different things, where fiat currencies and payment mechanisms are merely two of them. As a computer science problem, Bitcoin is a fascinating one. And, as an innovation vector, it’s a great example of “new” in a world that is desperately trying to hold on to “old.”
We are going to have a very rocky road as a society over the next 40 years. As with every generational shift, there is a lot of disruption (the 1960’s immediately come to mind.) But the amount of change, pace of change, democratization of innovation and entrepreneurship, connectivity of communication around the world, and intellectual complexity of the new innovations being created will dwarf anything we’ve seen as a species since our first moments of sentience.
Bitcoin is just a visible 2014 example of this. As Fred says at the end of his post
“When something as new and as different as Bitcoin emerges, it is tempting to want to “put the Genie back into the bottle” and protect ourselves from it. But thankfully the US did not do that with the Internet. The impact of the commercial Internet on the US economy and our society as a whole has been massive and overwhelmingly positive over the past twenty years. We should approach Bitcoin in exactly the same way and if we do, I expect the benefits we will see will be equally important, impactful, and beneficial to our economy and our society.”
My message to all the incumbents out there is a simple one. The more you try to organize and control “the new”, the harder it is going to be on society. The new is going to route around things, just like the Internet routes around things. Rather than fight innovation, embrace it, encourage it, iterate on it, accept the mess of it, and play with it, rather than against it. It’s more fun and will serve us better in the long run.
Every year or so my partners and I at Foundry Group create a new company, or start a new project, that we believe had the potential to change the way something works in our world, while simultaneously helping the entrepreneurs we work with, and the entrepreneurs we aspire to work with.
For example, in 2006, we co-founded Techstars. At the time David Cohen, the co-founder and CEO, was unhappy with how angel investing worked. He was dissatisfied with his experience and had a hypothesis around helping a group of companies get going, surrounding them with active mentors, and accelerating their early growth. The Techstars Boulder 2007 program was an experiment – we had no idea if it would work. Looking back seven years later, I’m immensely proud and satisfied with the impact Techstars has had on the world of entrepreneurship, especially at the early stages of company creation, and look forward to our goal over the next seven years of building the most powerful and connected early stage startup network in the world.
Our 2014 project is FG Press.
I wrote my first book, Do More Faster, with David Cohen in 2010. We worked with our publisher Wiley, who took a chance on us. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing and it was really fucking hard. I remember sitting at my kitchen table in Homer, Alaska in July 2010 at 2am almost crying with frustration. I was just grinding through the last bit of it and the tedium of the process was overwhelming. I kept thinking “there has to be a better way” even back then, but there was something magical about holding the book in my hands in October 2010 when it came out.
In 2011, when my partner Jason Mendelson and I wrote my second back, Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist, I had figured out the writing drill, but I was still baffled by the publishing process. It was painful and tedious, and there were many steps along the way that made no sense. But I kept writing and learning.
In 2012 I thought hard about self-publishing everything I did going forward, but I didn’t feel like I completely grokked the publishing business yet. Venture Deals was a very successful book and Wiley increased their focus and attention on me. I had an expectation that somehow things would be different, better, more impactful, and more aligned, especially around process, promotion, and economics. So I decided to do four more books, which make up the Startup Revolution series, including the most recent one – Startup Boards: Getting the Most Out of Your Board of Directors (the third in the series) – which just came out. Along the way, my long time friend Matt Blumberg (CEO of Return Path) decided to write a book so we added it on to the Startup Revolution series, resulting in Startup CEO: A Field Guide To Scaling Up Your Business.
There’s a lot more history, which I’ll cover in later posts, but all of this led to a place in fall of 2013 where my partners and I at Foundry Group started having a discussion about doing something different around the book publishing industry. We all are extensive readers and believe the long-form book is something that is very valuable, especially ones like Venture Deals that we believe will have at least a 20 year relevance, assuming we continue to update it. We also think it should be easier for more people to write and produce high quality, useful long-form books. While we think the entire process and engagement model is completely broken, that leads us to the punchline of the thing that is really wrong.
The relationship between the reader and the author has an immense amount of friction in it. And that friction comes from the publisher. It’s not just that the economics are wrong (why should the economic split between publisher and author be – on average – 85% to the publisher and 15% to the author?) but that the publisher sits in between the author and the reader. Sure – industrious writers can build direct relationships with their readers around their publisher – which is what happens today, but that’s silly. Shouldn’t the publisher be in the business of helping facilitate these relationships in addition to theoretically curating and producing the content?
We spent a morning together one day talking about this stuff. We came up with a very long list of issues, like the ones above, and then put the key question on the table: “What should we do about this.” My response was “let’s start our own publishing company.” Hence FG Press.
As with all new ideas, we started looking for patterns in things in the world that we liked. If you are familiar with McSweeney’s, O’Reilly, or Granta, then you understand where our brains were going and some of the companies that inspire us. Ultimately, we realized that the optimal model for what we were doing was Techstars, specifically the Techstars of 2006.
If you are a fan of analogies, Techstars is to “angel investing before Techstars” as FG Press is to “traditional publishing.” We are running an experiment in the first year. The experiment involves anyone who wants to participate. We expect to learn a lot and iterate very rapidly on what we are doing. And we plan to share out ideas widely, as a way of open-sourcing our learning, engaging with other people working on similar problems, while taking an author and reader-centric point of view, in the same way that Techstars took an entrepreneur and mentor-centric point of view.
Like Techstars, this is a new entity. It has a full time co-founder/CEO (Dane McDonald), just like Techstars was co-founded and run by David Cohen. It’s a self-funded entity, just like Techstars was for the first two years. Our goal is that it’s deeply complementary and integrated into everything we do and our point of view about the world of entrepreneurship, as Techstars is.
Will make mistakes. We’ll learn a lot. We’ll have fun. We hope you’ll come along for the journey with us. If you want to get a feel for one of the characters from our first book, just follow Mara Winkel on Twitter. And we’ll take Bitcoin, once we get the damn software working right.
For the past 15 years, I’ve signed everything in green ink. I don’t remember how it started – it just did. I think I found a green Paper Mate felt tip pen that I liked and just started using it. So – if you have something from me signed in green, you know it’s an original. Otherwise it’s a copy or has an electronic signature.
About once a month I get a document back from a lawyer with the request to “please sign in blue ink.” I’ve always found that amusing, so I do.
This morning I wandered by my partner Jason’s office and told him about the regular, recurring requests to please sign in blue ink. He looked at me like I was from Mars, which might be true. I showed him the request. He said, “I don’t remember which class in law school taught that documents need to be signed in blue ink.”
Just a reminder that it takes a long, long time for archaic business practices to completely disappear. Fax machine anyone?
It’s a daily occurrence that a college student emails me asking how they can get involved in the Boulder startup community or any startup ecosystem. This gets me both excited and sad – excited that another young soul is ready to put their energy into the fray and sad that opportunities for them to do so are not readily available or visible to them.
I like to describe the program as a 10-week immersion program into this startup community. Just as being complete immersed in a culture is the best way to learn that culture’s a language, being immersed in a startup community is, well, the best way to be a part of that startup community. The program does this through placing a cohort of students at various startups as an internship region, giving these students exposure to the top entrepreneurs and mentors, and providing a set of crash courses on entrepreneurship that allows the students to truly understand the discourse. A sample of companies participating are Gnip, TeamSnap, SendGrid, and Revolv. You can find the full list here.
Startup Summer is in its third year. For the first time, there will be two programs – one in Boulder and one in Denver. All the internships are paid. Application close on February 28, 2014 – go get the last few positions while you can.
Oh, and if you’re a company in Boulder or Denver that wants to participate, ping me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll see if we can fit you in this year. If not this year, then the next.
Before we started the strategy meeting, Matthew Bellows led us in a brief ritual where we “bowed in” to the meeting. At the end of the meeting, we all “bowed out.” I loved it – it set the tone of respect for each other at the start of the meeting and signaled the end of the meeting when we bowed out.
A few weeks ago, we had a Yesware board meeting. Matthew once again had us bow in to the meeting. This time there was a little bit of nervous laughter around the board table as it was the first time the full board had been exposed to this ritual. It wasn’t a negative tittering, just the sounds of a group encountering something unusual, interesting, and requiring some emotional intimacy while trying to process it in the moment.
Once again I loved it. It got me thinking about two things: (1) the importance of respect as a core value and (2) traditions that scale across the company.
Let’s start with respect. I’ve written about this many times on this blog. In 2004 I wrote a post titled TDC (Thinly Disguised Contempt). I learned about TDC from Alan Trefler, the CEO of Pega, who I don’t spend much time with but view as a long time friend and someone I’ve learned a lot from over the years. Early on at Feld Technologies, I learned how incredibly toxic TDC was and how critically important respect was. Respect for the people I work with, and the elimination of TDC from my mental state and behavior, is a core value of mine. Sure – I fail at it sometimes, but I keep practicing.
I have immense respect for Matthew as an entrepreneur and CEO. I’ve learned a lot from the few years I’ve worked with him. His calmness, even in moments of stress is powerful. The monastic culture he’s created at Yesware is inspiring. His execution as a leader, and the performance and cohesiveness of his team, is delightful to be part of.
Bowing in and bowing out made me gleeful. It was another wonderful example of something I could use in lots of other places and another thing I learned from Matthew. As I mulled it over, I realized the specific act wasn’t the key thing, but the power of a tradition that scales across the company. Bowing in and bowing out before and after each meeting. The gong that gets rung at Gnip every time a new sale is made or partner deal is signed. Or Paid PAID vacation at FullContact.
The combination of respect for every individual in the company combined with scalable traditions are incredibly powerful.
On Wednesday my partners and I had our monthly offsite. One of our rituals is a “check in” where we go around the table and each of us talks for as long as we want about how we are doing. Sometimes it’s a short discussion, other times it’s a long discussion. Since we do it monthly, nothing can build up. It’s similar to the monthly life dinner that I do with Amy – introspective, emotionally aware, and open. Some of these sessions have been incredibly powerful – on this one I had tears in my eyes at one moment as I was expressing appreciation for something my partners had done for me. And all of us had a powerful moment of calibration for everything we are feeling right now.
On Thursday I spent the morning with the Bullet Time Ventures team. This is the fund that David Cohen, the CEO of Techstars, founded. My partners and I are investors and huge supporters. The team was having an offsite and they asked me to participate in some of the discussion. I gave them a lot of suggestions and answered a lot of question, but one moment near the end stuck out in my mind when I was asked how my partners and I have managed to develop and sustain the deep personal and professional relationship we have, even with all the stress and conflict inherent in our business. I said that one of our deeply held beliefs is that we “never wear our armor to a meeting.” We call this being intellectually honest and emotional pure with each other. And it’s another example of linking respect with a scalable tradition – we never want to wear our armor in any of our interactions with each other.
Matthew – thank you for the gift of bow in and bow out. Both the specific action, and the reflection on the meaning of it.
I had a wonderful time interviewing Larry Gold last night at Entrepreneurs Unplugged. Larry is a special guy and someone I learn from every time I’m with him. Among the many great stories he told, including a doozy about the time he was a sophomore at Yale, he had a powerful one about how entrepreneurs assess potential outcomes. It resulted in a fun version of entrepreneurial math.
Envision a scenario where you there are 10 separate things you need to do to have a successful outcome. Each one has a 90% probability of success. What’s the probability that you will achieve a successful outcome?
I struggled with 6.041: Probabilistic Systems Analysis and Applied Probability (the probability course I took as an undergraduate) – it was one of those courses where I felt like I was a week behind for the entire semester. I did better in 15.075: Statistical Thinking and Data Analysis – maybe I was a little older, it was a little easier than 6.041, or I was more interested because I liked the professor better. If you are having trouble with a quick answer, both courses are available to you on MIT OpenCourseWare.
Back to the question. If you guessed around 35% you are correct. It’s actually 34.87%, which is (.9)^10. Now, by using the word separate, I’m implying 10 independent events, but this is the nuanced joy of theory versus practice.
Larry pointed out with glee that regardless, entrepreneurs believe when they start down the path of doing these 10 things there will be a successful outcome. Hence entrepreneurs math is (.9)^10 = 1.
Whether you agree with the math or not, it’s a great anecdote. So many things that we try as entrepreneurs and investors fail. We never make an investment thinking “this isn’t going to work”; we always invest thinking “this will work.” I don’t know any entrepreneurs who started their business thinking “this will fail” or even “this only has a 35% chance of working out.”
This shit is hard. And it’s low probability. Even if you have an ultimately successful outcome, many of the things you are going to try along the way are going to fail. But to do them, you’ve got to believe they are going to work. You’ve got to enter into the illusion that (.9)^10 = 1.
Now for something completely different. Amy and I are deep into Season 4 of The Wire. It’s up there with the best TV I’ve ever seen, in the same category of awesomeness as BSG.
In addition to the story, the acting is incredible. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch this short scene with Bunk and McNulty. Easily the best fuck scene on TV. Makes one long for more Big Lebowski.
I saw a great job title this morning when I was looking someone up on LinkedIn. It was “CTO Whisperer.”
As I’m getting deeper into meditation. I hear the word “teacher” a lot. I’d never thought much about it before, but it’s used in a similar way to how we use the word “mentor” at Techstars. When we started to use the word mentor in 2007, it required defining. Now mentor is getting overused by the broad entrepreneurial landscape. I have no idea whether teacher is overused as well, but the parallel got me thinking about the idea of a CEO Whisperer.
I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of The Horse Whisperer or a Dog Whisperer. A person who has a special, magic skill that certain animals respond to. A unique ability to calm and teach. A style about them that is unique, loving, and kind, even in difficult circumstances.
As I was mulling this over, my friend Jerry Colonna popped into my mind. While Jerry is referred to as a CEO coach, he most certainly is a CEO Whisperer. And for those who don’t know Jerry’s past, he was an extremely successful venture capitalist, founding Flatiron Partners with Fred Wilson in the mid-1990s before retiring from venture capital in the early 2000’s.
I count Jerry as a very close friend. As a mentor. As a teacher. And, with all great mentor / teacher relationships, we learn from each other. Which led me back to the idea of a CEO Whisperer.
In the 1990’s, Jerry and I worked together on several investments and were on a few boards together. Our styles were very complementary – we both had a soft touch and were supportive of the CEO, but had different things we could help with. I know that my involvement on these boards deeply shaped my role and approach as a board member and investor, as I thought Jerry was the best board member I’d ever worked with at that point in time.
I’ve met – and worked with – a few other people who I’d consider CEO Whisperers, but none compare to Jerry. And when I think about how I want to be viewed by the CEOs I work with, the idea of mentor and teacher immediately comes to the forefront of my mind.
The world of entrepreneurship needs more CEO Whisperers. Thanks Jerry for leading the way. On multiple fronts.
When I was working on Startup Boards: Getting the Most Out of Your Board of Directors I spent a lot of time thinking about my ideal board meeting. I also spent a lot of time thinking about why boards are ineffective and what you – as an entrepreneur – can do to change the dynamic of an ineffective board (other than firing your VCs, which is hard to do.)
On March 6, from 5:30pm – 7:00pm at CU Law School, I’ll be doing a Crash Course on Startup Boards. I’m being hosted by my friends at CU Law Dean Phil Weiser and Brad Bernthal (head of the Entrepreneurship Initiative).
I’m going to cover three things and then do Q&A.
- How an Ideal Board Meeting Works
- Top 10 Things A Board Can Screw Up
- How To Fix A Broken Board
I’ll give real examples from my experience as a board member on hundreds of boards.
I hope to see you there.